Can You Trust Your Favorite Linux Desktop to Stick Around?
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When I first started using Linux, Ubuntu had two gray panels that went across the top and bottom of the screen, and apps were orange. Within a year, those panels became tan. Then they became black.

Soon Canonical, the company behind Ubuntu, began developing its own user interface Unity Explained: A Look at Ubuntu's Default Desktop Environment Unity Explained: A Look at Ubuntu's Default Desktop Environment If you're switching to Linux from Windows, you might choose Ubuntu. But despite it's versatility, Ubuntu comes with an unusual desktop environment, Unity. Don't be discouraged: it's simple to use! Read More . This went through a few iterations before remaining stagnant for half a decade. Now it’s gone. Ubuntu has switched back to the GNOME desktop environment What Switching Back to GNOME Means for Ubuntu What Switching Back to GNOME Means for Ubuntu Canonical has announced the end of the Unity desktop. From Ubuntu 18.04, the GNOME desktop will be restored. What does this mean for Ubuntu, and its relationship with Linux users? Read More , which long ago abandoned those two gray panels for a fancy overview screen and virtual desktops.

Long story short, Ubuntu hasn’t gone anywhere, but it sure doesn’t look like it did way back when.

Whether you use Ubuntu or another Linux-based operating system, you may be asking yourself the question: Can I trust my favorite Linux desktop to stick around?

Why Do Desktops Change?

Let’s take a step away from Linux for the moment. Do other desktops undergo change?

The Ever-Changing Worlds of Windows and macOS

Windows 10 isn’t the same as Windows 8, which was different from Windows 7, which was different from Windows Vista. But with the exception of Windows 8, each release since Windows 95 has come with a start menu in the bottom left, a taskbar across the bottom, and a clock in the bottom right. The window dressing (pardon the pun) changes, but the experience remains fairly consistent.

While each version of macOS introduces more features, its overall design has been the same since the release of Mac OS X in 2001. While Macintosh desktops already had a panel across the top displaying menus and the time, Mac OS X came with a dock for managing apps as well as a glossy appearance. Newer releases have added more ways to launch and access apps.

Windows and macOS are both commercial desktops tied to giant corporations, Microsoft and Apple, which create software in order to drive a profit. Microsoft in particular feels the pressure to entice people to buy new versions of Windows by making the product look like a substantial upgrade, while at the same time keeping the experience consistent enough so as to not derail businesses and other organizations that depend on the software.

Back to Linux

On Linux, there isn’t one desktop interface that everyone uses. There are many to pick from It's Your Choice: The Top 10 Linux Desktop Environments It's Your Choice: The Top 10 Linux Desktop Environments From Gnome to KDE, from MATE to Unity, there's a lot of choice out there. Where should you start? Overwhelmed? Start here. Read More , which you’re free to swap out as you wish. There are also many different Linux operating systems The Best Linux Operating Systems The Best Linux Operating Systems There are Linux distros available for every purpose, which makes choosing one difficult. Here's a list of the very best Linux operating systems to help. Read More , also known as distributions, that make these desktop environments available for download in various forms. Some of these are directly run by companies, like Ubuntu, while others come from a community of people Companies vs. Communities: Who Makes a Better Linux Operating System? Companies vs. Communities: Who Makes a Better Linux Operating System? Some distributions have a company behind them. Ubuntu, the most popular desktop Linux operating system, is one, and it's not alone. But does having corporate responsibilities reduce, or enhance a Linux distro developer? Read More . Even in the case of the former, there’s usually a broader community helping to do some (or much) of the work.

Among Linux’s desktop interfaces, Unity was the most similar to Windows and macOS, in the sense that it was created to be a product for consumers, albeit a free one. Most Linux interfaces come around because someone, or a large group of someones, decides there needs to be a better way to interact with all of the many apps available for the free desktop The Best Linux Software The Best Linux Software Awesome apps are available for Linux. Whether you're new to the operating system or you're a seasoned user, you'll always find new and useful Linux software to love. These are our favorites. Read More .

These interfaces are free to use and free to upgrade, so you’re less likely to see arbitrary visual changes meant to attract eyeballs. Many Linux desktop and app designs have remained consistent for decades. When they do change, it’s because the developers have decided the old way is no longer adequate or, in contrast, they don’t know how to make it any better than it already is. Or it’s because the original developers have left and others have taken up the task of continuing the project.

It Comes Down to Resources

Sometimes whether an interface changes has less to do with what developers want to do and is instead constrained by what they can. Free desktops don’t have the kind of money going into them that Windows and macOS have, even when there’s a company like Canonical behind them. Some teams can’t afford to attract the kind of talent needed to do make certain improvements. Others have the know-how but simply lack the time to invest in what is ultimately a passion project separate from their day jobs.

“One of the things I’m most proud of in the last seven years is that Ubuntu itself has become completely sustainable. I could get hit by a bus tomorrow and Ubuntu would continue on.”
— Ubuntu Founder Mark Shuttleworth, interview with eWeek

For Unity and Canonical, resources were part of the problem. It’s not that Canonical couldn’t afford to keep working on the interface — it’s just that the interface wasn’t profitable. If the company were going to go public and attract investors, it wanted to first rid itself of big projects that weren’t making money. When it came to Unity and Ubuntu Phone, Canonical saw that it simply was not going to get a return on its investment.

Canonical is hardly the only company that has struggled to crack this nut. Linspire and Mandriva both tried to make money creating Linux operating systems. Mandriva went out of business in 2015, after sixteen years . Linspire is technically still around, but it isn’t doing anything that vaguely looks like making desktop Linux. The list of companies that have taken a stab at this is long, and the number that found success is low. At least in Canonical’s case, the company is still making money from Ubuntu, even if it isn’t from Unity.

What About Elementary OS?

This state of affairs made me nervous about my current Linux operating system of choice Want to Install Elementary OS? 7 Reasons Why You Should! Want to Install Elementary OS? 7 Reasons Why You Should! Elementary OS has developed into a compelling computing experience in 2017. Wondering if it's time to make the switch from your current Linux operating system? Here's why the answer is Yes. Read More , Elementary OS. That project is managed by a small company consisting of a few team members, with much of the vision articulated by its founder, Daniel Foré. I’ve come to feel more comfortable with non-profit entities: Mozilla Firefox, LibreOffice, and Debian have shown resiliency over the years.

I reached out to Foré with my concerns. Obviously, he couldn’t promise anything, but he did have this to say:

“elementary started as a purely volunteer-driven Open Source project about 10 years ago now, long before we decided to incorporate. I think that’s probably the best argument for us sticking around is that we’ve been around.”

He went on to say that forming Elementary LLC helps with holding funds, paying taxes, hosting events, and the like. As for the bulk of software development? Most of the contributions are still volunteer at this point.

Elementary actually considered being a non-profit entity, and a desire to make money was not why it didn’t go in that direction. As the Yorba Foundation (original creator of Geary and Shotwell) discovered, achieving non-profit status in the U.S. as a free software project isn’t a sure thing.

Becoming a non-profit can also come with restrictions that can make it hard for a small team to operate, such as the inability to hold on to savings, which would qualify as making a profit. This is why non-profit entities such as the GNOME Foundation and the Linux Foundation have a lengthy list of corporate donors whose money help them keep the lights on.

linux operating systems stick around

Questions to Ask When Picking a Linux Desktop

There’s nothing you can do to be certain your current Linux distro will stand the test of time, but there are certain questions you can ask that may lead you to one that’s likely to last.

1. How Many People Work on This?

Is this project a giant collaborative effort or one person’s pet project? The latter is a much more precarious place to be. A piece of software with too little manpower can stagnate simply because no one has time to work on it.

2. How Long Has the Project Existed?

A Linux distro that has been around for a decade or two is likely to have a foundation in place that keeps it running for more years to come. The founders may no longer be involved, showing that the project can survive transition and isn’t overly dependent on the continued interest of a handful of people.

3. What’s the Mission?

What is the project’s goal? If it wants to provide users with another distro or desktop environment to provide a social good or scratch an itch, then it can do so at its own pace. If the goal is to compete in the market as an open source consumer product, then the project might disappear if that bar isn’t reached. MeeGo, Firefox OS, and Ubuntu Phone are all cancelled open source smartphone projects that failed to attract enough consumer attention Is This the End for Ubuntu Touch? Is This the End for Ubuntu Touch? The Ubuntu Touch project is officially over, but that doesn't mean your Ubuntu phone is dead just yet. Here's what the cancellation means for you and what you should do next. Read More .

4. How Large Is the Community?

The larger the community, the more likely someone can pick up the project if the original team decides to bail. Case in point: OpenMandriva is a continuation of the software Mandriva left behind.

5. Who Contributes to the Code?

There tend to be two main approaches to open source development. There’s code dumping, where a team of internal developers throw new source code over the wall with each new release, and there’s open development, where contributions come from wherever and progress is done out in the open over the internet. Neither approach is a guarantee of anything, but code dumping does run the risk of no one outside the team having the interest or necessary expertise to pick up the project if the original developers move on.

Prominent Linux advocate Eric Raymond described these two approaches as the cathedral (code dumping) and the bazaar (open development) in an essay, expanded into a book, in the 90s Who Made Linux and Why Is It Free? Who Made Linux and Why Is It Free? Linux is the most widely-used free and open source operating system in the world. Unlike commercial alternatives, no person or company can take credit. But why is it free? And who is behind Linux? Read More .

6. Is There a Corporate Sponsor?

Fedora and openSUSE are two of the most established Linux projects out there, and each has a corporate sponsor. Red Hat and SUSE may not pump heaps of cash into either distro, but they do provide certain infrastructure that make keeping the projects alive easier to do. Plus both companies use the code to create their enterprise versions, giving them a clear incentive to keep the open source communities going.

7. Who Else Depends on This?

Are there other major companies, government departments, or school systems that rely on this Linux distro? They need this software to exist in order to accomplish important work. They may be able to help when a distro needs a hand.

8. Does the Project Infringe on Any Laws?

There’s a reason most Linux distros don’t provide multimedia codecs out of the box Why Your Music & Video Files Don't Play on Linux, and How to Fix It Why Your Music & Video Files Don't Play on Linux, and How to Fix It You've switched to Linux, but your video or audio files file won't play! Simply, your Linux version didn't come with the necessary codecs, so let's find out how to install them. Read More . That’s a murky legal issue. Distros that infringe on someone else’s copyright or trademark may even find themselves in hot water at some point. Just because someone hasn’t gone after them yet doesn’t mean they never will.

9. How Often Do New Updates Come Out?

Projects tend to peter out before they disappear for good. Unity existed largely unchanged for years before Canonical pulled the plug on the project. If your favorite distro or desktop environment isn’t seeing much active development, it may only be a matter of time before someone sends an email out over a mailing list announcing that they’re calling it quits.

Whatever Happens, Happens

Some projects do ultimately fade away. Running Moblin on an Intel Atom-powered netbook won’t exactly provide you with a current experience. Joli OS is open source, but you can’t exactly install it anymore. Sometimes all you can do is say goodbye.

But with open source software, this tends to be the exception to the rule. Unity may be gone, but Canonical did a great job making GNOME feel just like it Stick With Ubuntu: GNOME Feels Surprisingly Just Like Unity Stick With Ubuntu: GNOME Feels Surprisingly Just Like Unity Ubuntu has abandoned Unity in favor of a new spin on the GNOME 3 desktop. But is it really all that different from Unity? Here's why you shouldn't really be thinking about quitting Ubuntu. Read More . If you simply can’t adjust to GNOME, there are other projects doing their part to keep the Unity experience alive 5 Projects That Prove Unity Is Far From Dead 5 Projects That Prove Unity Is Far From Dead Struggling to come to terms with Unity's abrupt end? You're in luck. These projects will help you get the most from Canonical's abandoned desktop environment for years to come! Read More .

When GNOME jumped to version 3.0, a group of folks got together to continue developing GNOME 2 under a different name MATE Explained: A Look at One of Linux's Most Enduring Desktops MATE Explained: A Look at One of Linux's Most Enduring Desktops Unlike commercial operating systems, Linux lets you change your desktop environment. One of the most popular is MATE, but how good is it, and should you install it on your Linux PC? Let's find out. Read More . Another project formed from an effort to make GNOME 3 feel more like GNOME 2 Cinnamon 2.0 Ditches GNOME, Features Enhanced User and Window Management Cinnamon 2.0 Ditches GNOME, Features Enhanced User and Window Management Cinnamon, the desktop shell using in Linux Mint, has finally released v2.0, which features new window tiling and snapping, along with enhanced user management options. Read More .

On Linux, you can swap from one distribution to another or choose a different desktop environment and usually walk away with a comparable experience. It may not always be pleasant, but it could be worse.

What open source software projects have you had to say goodbye to over the years? Are there any you wish to use but are afraid won’t be around for long? Do you feel that free and open source software is more or less likely to fade away than closed source apps? Share your thoughts in a comment!

Image Credit: SIphotography/Depositphotos

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  1. mike
    November 28, 2017 at 2:14 am

    One of the things that brings out screams of anguish and cursing is the every changing GUI (graphic user interface) of desktops. It seems that the software/hardware community hasn't gotten IT yet. Most people use a computer like a car. People just want to use the OS etc. to get work done and not want to spend all day trying to figure out where everything is and how it works yet again. With a car you get in drive to your destination and get out. The steering wheel is in the same place (in the US the left side), the gas pedal and brake are in the same place and work the same way so driving a car in not an adventure in "how does this work." One reason Microsoft took over the world is its slow GUI migrations. They had buildings filled with human factors people to make this happen, I know I was there and took part in some of these discussions.

    If the Linux community really wanted to "take over the world" it would get together and make a simple GUI version with the basic apps i.e. a calculator, a text app, an office app, a browser and a few games based on the GUI guides of Apple and Microsoft. A "training wheels" version if you will, and leave all the wiz-bang stuff for later. At this point I could see one GUI for phones and one for computers.

    Then the Linux community would tell users that want to start customizing that there was a "brown belt" version to take a cue from the martial arts in which they were shown how to do basic stuff, like updating, adding apps, etc. for those who want to expand their abilities and decide they want to start an "affair" with Linux.

    Finally, they would setup a "black belt" arena to teach people how to snap-in exotic GUI front ends, use Bash to modify files, dual boot systems and so on. This would give them a "route" to moving to Linux as a mainstream OS for those other than geeks running networks trying to get Windows and Samba to play nice together.

    • Bertel King, Jr.
      November 30, 2017 at 2:31 pm

      Someone has had that idea before, and they created a very simple GUI. Here was the result: https://xkcd.com/927/

      In the free software world, no one can stop anyone else from making yet another GUI, and no one has the authority to say "this is the GUI we will all rally around." On the other hand, as a company making proprietary software, Microsoft *does* have the ability to produce one GUI that everything in the Windows ecosystem revolves around.

  2. zoomer296
    November 23, 2017 at 7:31 pm

    Man, saying goodbye to Fuduntu was hard. It was the first distro I'd installed on anything, and it ran like a dream on my Dell Dimension L933r.

    As for if open-source projects are more likely to fade away? No. When an open-source project ends or changes, somebody can always pick up the torch or fork it. Somebody recently blew the dust off Slax, which has been dead longer than Fuduntu.

  3. Irv
    November 21, 2017 at 3:07 pm

    Ubuntu is like a big Oak Tree that has planted its roots, and it is going to be hard to cut it down. I go back to the start when it was just a seed being planted. As I watched it grow and saw the changes happening, I knew it was going to be a great OS. Desktops come, and desktops go, but Ubuntu is not a desktop it is an excellent distro with the core kernel at its heart. And being Debian based adds to it likeability and ease of use. Installing software from Repository is a breeze.
    To wrap it up I will just say that Ubuntu Linux will be around for a long, long time.

  4. dragonmouth
    November 21, 2017 at 3:00 pm

    "What open source software projects have you had to say goodbye to over the years? "
    SImplyMEPIS. It was essentially a one-man show by Woody Woodward. Luckily, anticapitalista and the MEPIS community forked the code and came out with antiX and MX Linux. The two big changes are XFCE replaced KDE and Systemd replaced SysVinit.

    "4. How Large Is the Community?"
    A parallel question to ask is "How passionate is the community?" Sometimes the intensity of the community's dedication to a project will keep it going in spite of the community's small size.

    By asking the above 9 questions you are trying to equate Linux projects with commercial ones. That is sort of like comparing the proverbial apples and oranges. Windows and MacOS were developed and are maintained with the intention of making profit. Obviously they have big corporations (with stockholders) behind them. We all know the origins of Linux. It was and is a statement. Linux, to a large extent is based on emotion and driven by passion. If a commercial product is not making money, it will be terminated. Because of the passion and emotion, unsuccessful/unpopular Linux projects have a much better chance of surviving. Because of the way Linux licenses work, somebody can continue to work on them. No Linux projects are 100% unpopular or unsuccessful. There always is some group that sees some merit in them and is willing to either fork them or to pick up their development. One example is Unity DE. For whatever reason, Canonical gave up on it but a community group picked it up and will continue its development. Other examples is openMandriva and openIndiana. In the case of the former, the company went out of business. In the case of the latter, the company gave up on the project. In both cases a community group picked the development and maintenance of the project. There are many other examples. The bottom line is that there is not much danger of Linux projects vanishing.

    "Are there any you wish to use but are afraid won’t be around for long?"
    As I stated above, most projects will endure. Rather than wish that certain projects will continue, I wish some would already die. LinuxBBQ distro comes with a choice of 75+ desktop environments and window managers. Each DE and WM was created to scratch some kind of an itch for someone. But do we REALLY need that many??? I can just hear the dyed-in-the-wool Linux users screaming "But we want the choice!!!" And paradoxically that is the problem with the Linux community. Many projects that should go away, do not because there is someone, somewhere that likes them and/or is still using them. As of the latest count, DistroWatch has 520 discontinued distributions in its database, with another 55 being dormant. No foreseeable maintenance or development for 575 projects and yet they still hang around like zombies.

  5. Ralph
    November 21, 2017 at 5:18 am

    I think Ubuntu will still be around for a long time, even if canonical disappears they will still be plenty of community efforts and one doesn't need to be run by a company to be successful. You just need a dedicated team of Developers and a faster way of intelligent users which is something that Linux will always have over windows

  6. Steppenwolf
    November 21, 2017 at 1:45 am

    Stick with shell and you will be fine.
    I can do almost anything like having desktop without gaming and javascript-enabled web surfing.
    So as long as you can maintain it, these software survive for you. They won't fade away for you.

  7. Steppenwolf
    November 21, 2017 at 1:39 am

    I feel pretty safe as long as Bash, EMACS, mc survive. I can do pretty much most what I can do with any desktop besides gaming and JavaScript-enabled web browsing.
    So I would not worry about this that much.

  8. GhostRider2001
    November 20, 2017 at 6:34 pm

    Odds are pretty good Gnome 3, KDE, XFCE, Mate and Cinnamon are here for long haul. I would bet on DeepIn as well. Pantheon on Elementary OS will probably be done if that distro goes belly up. In most cases, there is a difference between distro and desktop, which this article seems to confuse. Lots of great highly customizable desktops on Linux (yes, you can make your desktop look like Windows XP or Windows 10 if you want). Windows still seems to be recovering from the Windows 8 debacle and suffers from a bit of a split personality.

  9. Rann Xeroxx
    November 20, 2017 at 5:13 pm

    Think about it, what if all the hundreds of distro, the vast majority mostly different desktop GUI variants, combined their resources to reduce the number down to just 10? But what makes Linux good is the face that it is pretty much the wild west of OS and forks everywhere.

    Personally I find the Windows GUI the most useful. I think 10 is still in transition from the old shells to the new UI so 7 is probable the most consistent. But I do really love touch on Windows 10.